I pulled my car into the Key Food parking lot and sighed. Another typical day and I was already tired. No rest for the weary, I suppose. I mean, dropping off the kids at school and now having to do a last-minute grocery trip for a dinner party I did not ask for? Sure, I have nothing else to do. I grabbed my purse and dragged myself out of the car and trudged to the store. I wanted to get in and out. Spotting a cart, I grab it and head through the glass doors. Normally, I don't mind going to Key Food. I enjoy slowly walking up and down the aisles, with each step returning me to my childhood. My Mami describing the flavors that would grace her cooking. "This Mija," she would say, "is a necessity when making rice. Not only does the achote give it flavor, but it gives it the color of the sunrise."
I always hear her dictating her recipes in my ear as I visit each aisle. But today there was no time to walk down memory lane. I had to conquer my shopping list in the least amount of time possible.
My eyes darted around, scanning the names of each aisle, speeding past those I didn't need and headed towards those that held the items on my list. Check, check, check — each item thudding into the cart. My shopping list feeling the slash of my pen as I cross items off the list. My pace quickened as the list became shorter and shorter. Just one more thing, I thought to myself, and then I can get out of here. My last destination was the meat department. Here is where I would find the pièce de résistance: the pernil.
As I headed toward the meat department, my phone began to sing one of my favorite songs. I fished it out of my purse and answered without even checking the caller ID. "Hello, Mike," I said, as I park my cart next to a display of chips.
"Aw, what's the matter? Tough day?" a male voice asked.
I could hear the teasing in his voice, and it only irritated me further. My husband has a real knack for that. "Really, Mike?"
"I can hear you rolling your eyes over there."
I stopped mid-roll. "You haven't exactly made this the easiest day for me, you know. It's not like I don't have other things to do."
"I'm sorry, Babe, but I found out about this at the last minute. And I know that you can throw something together in a pinch."
"Well, putting together a family meal is one thing. But now your little 'get together' has ballooned into a damn family reunion! Do you want to invite some of your old neighborhood friends while you're at it?" I asked, my voice dripping with sarcasm.
"Well, I do have a couple of-" Mike started.
"Don't even think about it. Why did you call me anyway?" I glanced toward the meat counter and saw that new cuts of pernil being put out. Great, I thought. I'll get first dibs on the larger pieces.
"I was just wondering if you could pick up a dessert?" Mike asked
Something else? I thought sighing. "Sure. Anything in particular?" I hugged the phone between my cheek and shoulder, steering my cart toward the pernil.
"Uh, bread pudding?"
I noticed other women heading toward the pile of pork — older ladies. Viejitas. And they don't play. "Your mom's favorite. Of course." I wonder if I can add strangling to my to-do list. "Look, Mike, I have to go. Otherwise, there will be no party."
"The viejitas cometh?" he asked, chuckling.
"You know it. And I need to get over there quick, or I'll be stuck with the smaller pernils." I replied, moving my cart closer to the meat case.
"Ok. Vaya con Dios."
"Thanks," I replied and hung up. Go with God, indeed. And off I went into battle. I slowly pushed my way into the swarm of ladies, trying to appear inconspicuous. Being that I looked young for my age, I figured they would think I had no idea what I was doing. Choosing the correct cut of meat was super important. Too much fat and you're only buying fat. Too little skin and you won't have enough to crisp it up, making the Cuero. That is one of the essential elements to making a perfect pernil. If you can't make a tap-tap noise with the tongs, culinary respect is lost. My eyes swim across the various pieces, dismissing those that are too small or way too fatty. Mami always took her time. First, she would gaze upon them as a sage would gaze into a fire, preparing to speak. Once her eyes rest upon the perfect specimen, she would quickly grab it before her competition could, walking away with triumph in her eyes. I always thought she took this meat selection way too seriously. But now as I stand among the Viejitas, the understanding hits me like a lightning. Sizzling with purpose, my eyes begin to dance with the meat case. My glance moves among the old withered hands that have seen decades of cooking for large families involving them in my salsa of decision. Twisting and turning, moving back and forth, my hands ready to out the star of my meal. A meal that would secure my standing as a great wife, someone my Mami would proud, knowing that I can carry on the traditional meals of my youth.
My choice is made as I reach out and take the star of my meals, as if I am exclaiming, "you're going to Hollywood." I chuckle at this as I place the pernil in my cart, causing one of the viejitas to look up. I give a small smile, and she returns it with a knowing smile. Through that exchange, the universal language of love is spoken. The language that is spoken through food.